Lee Smith has a knack for mining the chaos and pathos of everyday life for rich veins of broad humor. Her characters are prone to shocking weaknesses, outlandish excesses, and questionable decision-making, which makes readers love and root for them all the more. But her ability to spin tragedy into comedy is challenged as never before in her new novel, Silver Alert, as a motley cast of characters navigates a world filled with cruelty, pain, and loss, while at least one stubbornly clings to her hope for a better future.
Herb Atlas is an 83-year-old millionaire who lives in a pink tropical-themed mansion in Key West with his beloved third wife, Susan, the victim of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Herb is frustrated and overwhelmed by his wife’s constant care needs and his own failing health, and so spends much of his time dreaming of the past, especially of simpler times with his first wife, Roxana, beginning with their shared childhood in Buffalo. Present-day Herb is gruff, stubborn, rude, profane, and perpetually angry. He “hates everybody that’s young, everybody that’s having fun.” But he does have a heart. And when a young manicurist shows up at his door to give Susan a pedicure, he is charmed by her way with his wife. Dee Dee’s gentle sweetness calms and enthralls Susan, and Herb is overcome with gratitude. An unexpected sort of friendship is born.
Dee Dee Mullins hails from the mountains of North Carolina. Despite being used and abused by the adults in her life from an early age, and still at the mercy of friends and acquaintances who do not have her best interests at heart, Dee Dee remains naively optimistic and determined to use the skills she learned in a state-sponsored intervention program called Rainbow Farm to make something of her life. Her plans are often misguided but no less admirable considering all that she has been through. Her enthusiasm, kindness, and strength are infectious.
The third central character is Susan, whose condition puts the story’s wheels in motion. Herb praises her former vivacity and her way with people: “’I’m Susan Summerville, the last wife!’ Susan used to introduce herself to everybody, laughing, winking…. Everybody always felt better when Susan walked into a room. It was kind of a gift that she had.” In a lovely touch, Smith renders Susan’s silent impressions of life in the midst of illness as bittersweet poetic asides, often inspired by the art pieces Dee Dee encourages her to paint, one color at a time, by setting up an easel in the garden:
PINK is the color of
clouds at sunset
the girl I was
When Herb’s and Susan’s grown children make plans to move both parents to a care facility, Herb is outraged, yet lacks the emotional energy to resist. Meanwhile, the circumstances of Dee Dee’s life have presented both gifts and challenges that will tax her resources far beyond their limits. Herb and Dee Dee each find an unlikely ally in the other, as they connect over their tendency toward magical thinking and their mutual inability to navigate a present that is beyond their control. As Dee Dee faces an uncertain future, Herb must find a way to make peace with the past.
Silver Alert is rich with Lee Smith’s gift for vivid storytelling and memorable asides, like this gem delivered by Dee Dee, as she reflects on a particularly quirky member of her long-gone mountain kin: “Old Rellar, my auntie way up on Moon Ridge, used to say, ‘There’s tales I’ll tell and tales I won’t.’ She sat in her front parlor with her beautiful bell jar and those cards she kept shuffling and dealing over and over. Sometimes she chewed tobacco, which she spit in a brass spittoon. Old Rellar kept to herself. In fact, she was dead for a long time before anybody even knew it, just sitting up there in the window of her cabin like she always did, looking down the mountain at the road. Anybody that happened to look up there would not of known she was dead.”
The account of Old Rellar is at once lively, grim, funny, and poignant, much like this novel. Silver Alert is a tale that Lee Smith fans will be glad she told.
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.